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SMOLDERING ISSUES AND HOT FLASHES

A triple-header at the Newport Harbor Art Museum to July 7 addresses burning issues of our time. Well, maybe not burning. Smoldering? Guttering? Flickering? Something like that.

A traveling retrospective revival of Jan Mueller’s painting asks the visual question, why are we plunging headlong into the past? Mueller was a German refugee who worked in New York and died there in 1958 at the early age of 36. The art world barely knew him when he expired and hardly anyone has thought of him since, so it seems fair to view the show as an interesting but fairly esoteric footnote to contemporary history and to wonder what can be the point of resurrecting him now.

The terrain of art history is pocked with poignant stories of artists who were not vouchsafed the time to fulfill their promise. The Eva Hesses and Andrew Wilfs of the world leave us wondering if art would have been greatly different had they been able to go on. In the world of What If we never, of course, get answers to these profound conundrums. But hard-nosed realism seems to suggest that the work of history gets done in spite of the individual. Urgent ideas find many a willing hand to give them shape.

This is particularly true in Mueller’s case, as he was part of a well-populated late-'50s swing back to the depiction of the figure after the triumph of Abstract Expressionism. Mueller spent time studying with Hans Hofmann, the pedant-patriarch of AE, and produced formal fields of squarish dots. But he soon joined a group of his contemporaries in a cooperative gallery and respectful revolt against the older generation. The East 12th Street showplace was called Hansa, and the stable included such well-remembered figures as George Segal, Allan Kaprow and Richard Stankiewicz.

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Compared to his peers’ eventual development, Mueller was conservative. Every formality and emotional wavelength in his work was pre-established in Northern European figurative Expressionist movements early in the century. What little was not accounted for by them was taken up in the ‘40s French Art Brut style of Jean Dubuffet and that lot.

The selection of about 25 works on view at Newport has the superficial manners of strident Expressionism. Big formats, blocky forms, busy brushwork and intense color seem to promise the fervor of Ensor or Nolde. Mueller, however, quickly turns out a much more ruminative artist. Rarely does he escape the underlying proportions of Renaissance figure-in-landscape compositions and even alludes directly to folding altarpieces. He likes classic religious subjects like “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (his most vital painting) and literary themes like “Hamlet and Horatio.”

Mueller was something of a Hamlet himself. He did not really want to act. He wanted to worry. Spectral white figures haunt many a work but they are less terrifying than mournful with their cottony forms and child-art features.

This art is like the bad dreams of a good German boy who knows he is going to die. In “The Search for the Unicorn,” he feels erotic desire but it is smothered by a combination of guilt at having the feelings and regret that they will never be realized. A still-life bouquet called “All Living Things” reveals Mueller as the doomed young poet being cheerful.

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Touching as it is, this art will persuade few that it is the spawn of an ignored genius for whom history must be rewritten. It is certainly worth pondering for its own sake, but one suspects another subtext. Mueller’s art looks like much current Neo-Expressionism, but it makes no historical sense as an actual precursor.

So, we come back to the original question: Why are we once again plunging into the past? One usual answer is that we hope it will reveal something about the present. In Mueller’s case, the lesson is less in the work than in the artist’s biography. An essay in the slender catalogue reveals that Mueller spent his last years with a plastic pump in a heart badly weakened by rheumatic fever. He could have prolonged his life by taking it easy but chose to paint until he dropped.

Aha! At last we have it. Mueller’s function in the art world is to stand as a symbol of the true artist’s profound dedication to a lofty calling.

One must react to that idea with some recognition that all art (and other) spheres of special interest sometimes lose objectivity in fits of sentimentality.

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It also happens that holding Mueller up as a mirror to Neo-Expressionism and its adherents is a healthy idea. Heaven knows that often cynical lot can use a reminder that art does require exceptional passion and ethical rigor.

Present time is the focus of “Contemporary American Ceramics.” The show, organized by the Newport Museum and New York’s Independent Curators Inc., acknowledges California as the cradle of today’s ceramic art but shows 20 artists who prove accomplished work is made throughout the land. That done, it launches into a gripe familiar to artistic sub-categories from printmaking to photography.

“The most daunting task that confronts these artists is to overcome historical prejudices so the validity of their work can be recognized in its own right,” writes curator Karen McCready in her catalogue essay. “Major art journals and newspapers have been reticent in expressing critical interest and few art critics review exhibits of work made of clay.”

The assertion is at least one-third pure bunk and one-third self-pity. The rest may be true. At least one major newspaper (which you are presently reading) has cheerfully and regularly reviewed clay art for 20 years and more. Experience suggests that critics and connoisseurs are too desperate to find quality to care of what material it is made. When Picasso made prints they prevailed. When Robert Rauschenberg incorporated photography in his art everybody just cheered. When Peter Voulkos sculpted in clay it was self-evidently art and the cognoscenti were glad to say so.

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When was the last time we heard George Segal complain of his difficulties in overcoming prejudices against Plaster of Paris art?

The truth is that quality overcomes materials. Artworkers are well advised to think twice about calumny clubs that whine for special recognition as members of deprived material minorities.

“Glass workers arise. My name is Larry Bell and I have had a terrible time getting famous because of my chosen medium.”

Such groups are all too often the art world’s equivalent of petty-political pressure groups and havens of mediocrity.

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So much indignation acknowledged, it must also be said that artists who believe they are working in an undervalued medium can develop psycho-aesthetic complexes. Maybe that accounts for the fact that so many of the ceramic artists here seem to suffer from overcompensation syndromes from Chronic Clever to Acute Cute.

Showing off is always unbecoming, but it is particularly self-destructive when the point is to demonstrate up-to-dateness. In proving they know all about Neo-Expressionism, Judy Moonelis, Mary Jo Bole, Patrick Siler and cohorts define themselves as followers.

Sincerity and technical virtuosity mark these artists from Jan Holcomb’s guilt-riddled little tableau to Andrea Gill’s robot-head vessels, but they try so hard the place starts to smell like a boutique. Even an interesting spatial concept like Lydia Buzio’s cityscape vessels are compromised by the ambiance of self-consciousness. One grows grateful for the flaky awkwardness of Robert Brady and Arthur Gonzalez or the straightforward vessels of Rick Dillingham and Christina Bertoni.

Maybe “ceramic artists” once did have specialized problems. Today their symptoms are becoming general. A larger art world that seems to have lost its way is slipping toward a product evermore comparable to sophisticated graphic design and illustration.

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Bringing us finally to the question, what does art do to get out of this mess? The solution proposed by Kent Roberts’ first museum solo is to address the Great Scary Issues of our time. Roberts, a Bay Area object-maker and draftsman, presents a row of model concrete furnaces and related drawings that remind us of industrial pollution. He then presents a missile-shaped bunker, a curved copper funnel and related drawings that remind us of nuclear holocausts both bellicose and accidental.

Thanks. We have not been alarmed about these issues since the 7 o’clock news ended and our reaction is a complete numb blank.

“Orange and Black Boat,” however, sparks poetic stirrings. It is a 10-foot-long incomplete model of a freighter. A couple of the ceramic artists use the same motif, which seems indefinably significant right now. It suggests Conrad’s moral adventure stories, the Flying Dutchman and all the legends of phantom ships that remind us of grand designs that fail and the necessity of pursuing our obsessions even so. Even though the ultimate ghost derelict icon was made long ago by H. C. Westermann, there is something comforting about its revival. It’s a convincing symbol of the virtue of the romantic folly of art.


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